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Rare Tigers Raised in Africa to be “Rewilded” in China

Critically Endangered South China tiger cubs born in captivity in China, but raised in South Africa where they were taught to hunt for their food, are soon to be introduced into a controlled wilderness in their native country. The many people involved, at considerable effort and expense, hope that the experiment will show the way to not only...

Critically Endangered South China tiger cubs born in captivity in China, but raised in South Africa where they were taught to hunt for their food, are soon to be introduced into a controlled wilderness in their native country. The many people involved, at considerable effort and expense, hope that the experiment will show the way to not only save tigers from extinction, but also to be able to reintroduce them into their natural habitat as wild and free predators.

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A young tiger in contemplative mood at Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa.

Photograph by Leon Marshall

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg

The time is fast approaching for two young South China tigers to make their way home and put to the test the survival skills they had been learning on a rugged tract of land in South Africa.

Potential reserves have been identified in China where they will be allowed to roam relatively freely and fend for themselves in the wild. Their success or otherwise could decide whether the sub-species (Panthera tigris amoyensis), considered the “stem” tiger from which all the rest spring, survives.

Theirs will be a critical test. With only a few dozen left, and these mostly in zoos, some conservationists have already given up hope for the species, which is said to be smaller than other tigers and their stripes thinner and more spaced.

One of the Most Endangered Animals

Though some are still believed to be left in the wild, searches of the forests and mountains of southeastern China that used to be their stomping ground have reportedly proved fruitless. It has led to it being declared one of the most endangered animals in the world. Hunting of the species and decimation of its prey and habitat have been the cause of its demise.

So parlous is the state of the South China tiger that there are sceptics who argue that efforts should rather be concentrated on those of the species, like the Bengal tiger, that still have a chance.

Other conservationists, as apparently also the Chinese authorities, believe otherwise. Their hopes now seem largely pinned on the expatriates from South Africa whose arrival in China will be the culmination of a remarkable project that goes back seven years to when two cubs flew in the opposite direction. [Read Leon Marshall’s 2005 National Geographic News article: Chinese Tigers Learn Hunting, Survival Skills in Africa.]

Those early two arrived in South Africa on a flight from Hong Kong, in transit from Beijing. They where taken from a zoo, and being the pioneers of the scheme aimed at rescuing the species, the male was named Hope in a competition offered to readers of a British newspaper. The female was called Cathay in honour of Cathay Pacific, the airline that sponsored their trip.

The two cubs had a grand reception. The Chinese ambassador to South Africa was there to meet them and the party of Chinese officials who accompanied them on the flight.

Also in the flight party was Li Quan, a former fashion executive at Gucci, Benetton and Fila in Italy who founded Save China’s Tigers, the organization behind the rescue mission. [Watch Save China’s Tigers video below.] It was on her advice that China’s own official Tiger Rehabilitation and Reintroduction Project, after discussions with conservationists mainly from South Africa, granted permission for some tigers to be taken out of the country.

Save China’s Tigers video

A striking and evidently resolute women, her cause has various roots. One is her birth in 1962 in the Chinese Year of the Tiger and her consequent adoration of the animal from childhood. Another is a visit to South Africa in 1999 on which she saw how conservation and ecotourism was being driven to the benefit of each other and of job creation.

Yet another was her marriage to a wealthy financier named Stuart Bray, who happened to appreciate her passion for tigers and invested a considerable sum in appropriating an 81,544-acre (33,000-hectare) piece of land constituted of former sheep farms in South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo region. The high-security game-fenced estate named Laohu Valley Reserve, Laohu meaning “old tiger,” was to become the site of the animals’ breeding and rewilding program.

After a spell in quarantine, the cubs had their first feel of the African environment when they were released into a holding camp near Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital. Their tender paws had to get used to the thorns and rocky terrain, but they were soon able to catch small game.

Tiger Woods and Madonna

In September 2004 their odyssey saw them taken in a light plane to Philippolis, a quaint Free State Province village near Laohu, from where they were taken to their future home, a sizeable camp with a stream running through it and trees and bushes and grassy plains offering beautiful vistas across the African landscape.

Not long after, they were joined by two more cubs from China, one a male named Tiger Woods by children in China and a female named Madonna by children in the United Kingdom.

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Life’s a yawn for a young tiger being “rewilded” in South Africa before being returned to China.

Photograph by Leon Marshall

A year after arriving, tragedy struck when Hope died of pneumonia and heart failure. By that time he and Cathay were already adept at catching medium-sized antelope. But his weak health was symptomatic of the shrunken gene pool of the captive-bred tigers.

Another young male was brought from China, but it was Tiger Woods who came to the rescue. He sired cubs with Cathay and Madonna, and with the rest of the young females as they reached mating age. It is from his offspring, all by now quite proficient at stalking, chasing and bringing down their own buck, that the two tigers will be selected to be flown back, possibly by April next year, to try out their skills in China’s wilds.

They will first be put into a transition site named Meihua Mountain in Fujian province to get them used to their new environment. Three sites have been identified as their possible future domains. One is Houhe Nature Reserve in Hubei Province, another the Hupingshan Nature Reserve in Hunan Province, and the third Matoushan Nature Reserve in Jiangxi province.

Li Quan says cat specialists believe the tigers should have little trouble adapting to their new environment. The terrain will consist of forests and bush which will suit their hunting style much better than sparsely treed Laohu. And the wild boar and dear should prove no harder to catch than the African antelope.

The transition will be done in close consultation with South African conservationists, mainly Petri Viljoen, a former senior scientist in the country’s flagship reserve, Kruger National Park, and Gus van Dyk, former carnivore manager at Pilanesberg Reserve, a popular park about two hours’ drive from Johannesburg. Both have played a key role in planning and executing the entire rewilding initiative.

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A young tiger trudges the sparsely treed terrain of their rewilding program at Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa.

Photograph by Leon Marshall

Another who has been closely involved, is internationally renowned tiger specialist David Smith of the University of Minnesota’s department of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology.

One of some conservationists’ criticism of the project has been that a species should not be brought into foreign territory as it could put the animals themselves at risk and be harmful to the indigenous environment.

I asked Smith for his views. He responded:

“The criticism about rewilding tigers in a foreign country is really not valid. The issue is, can we rewild tigers? And, if we can, is there a place for them to be reintroduced in China?

“From what I saw at Laohu Valley, tigers have been rewilded in the sense that they can hunt wild prey of about the same size as their former natural prey in China (e.g. sambar and sika deer). In fact, the conditions tigers are hunting in at Lahou Valley are probably more difficult than conditions in their natural habitat because the habitat is more open than in China.

“Was there another place beside South Africa where tigers could have learned to hunt on their own? I don’t think so. For one thing, where else are there large quantities of wild prey for training tigers to hunt. Surely not in China or elsewhere in South or Southeast Asia. South Africa has a ready supply of wild ungulates that are legally captured, transported and sold. So in South Africa Li Quan had a source of prey for training tigers to hunt; I know of no other place where enough wild prey is available.

“There is a high likelihood that tigers that have skill in hunting ungulates in South Africa will have the same level of skill hunting ungulates in China.”

“Can a tiger that is skilled at hunting blesbok and wildebeest successfully hunt sambar and sika deer? Time will tell. But the answer is there is a high likelihood that tigers that have skill in hunting ungulates in South Africa will have the same level of skill hunting ungulates in China.

“Will the behavior of cervids in China be different from the behaviour of bovids in South Africa? Yes. Blesbok evade predators by moving to open country where there is no cover for a stalking tiger. From my observation, that makes blesbok harder to hunt than the prey in China.

“The final question is, should one care where a tiger is rewilded, or should one care if the rewilded tiger can really hunt efficiently in the wild? I think the latter.”

Smith said, from his observations, he thought the tigers were indeed ready to be returned to China. But it had to be done in steps of perhaps two at a time.

“Li Quan needs to keep producing rewilded tigers in South Africa over the next few years. If we look at the successful reintroduction of many species it has often taken repeated introductions.

“One of the best examples of reintroduction is that of the peregrine falcon in North America. The first strategy was to only reintroduce peregrines that were captured geographically near the reintroduction site, but soon the strategy shifted to bringing peregrines from far and wide. The important issue was to have a supply of animals to overcome the occasional failures due to chance events. The same is true for tigers.”

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Surveying the landscape for for African antelope. Soon it will be Chinese deer.

Photograph by Leon Marshall

Asked about what he saw as the main challenges ahead, he responded:

“The main challenge is restoring habitat in China. A protected area of approximately 150 square kilometers (57.9 square miles) has been identified. Now it is important to rebuild the deer population at the proposed site to a density of 4-6 deer/km2.

“Politics in China may force tigers to initially be introduced at the wrong site. The decision about where to reintroduce tigers should be made by wildlife biologists, not high government officials whose decision may reflect political favoritism. If everything else is equal, favoritism may not be bad, but favoritism that leads to a bad biological decision is detrimental to China’s reputation.

“Much effort has been invested by the Chinese government in this rewilding project. It is important at this juncture to find the best site for reintroduction.”

I remarked that it remains a small project taking on a massive challenge–only a few re-wilded animals to be released in what would surely has to be a properly fenced and big enough reserve back in China. Can it make a meaningful impact?

Smith’s response: “South Africa has rewilded many protected areas in the last 50 years by reintroducing animals. Over the years the skill level has increased. In one Zimbabwe reintroduction project, a South African translocation expert captured and moved 500 elephants into a reserve where 35 years before all elephants were shot out to make the area into a cattle ranch. The economics of cattle farming did not work and now the area is again habitat to elephants.

“With China’s financial strength and the increasing interest in protecting its environment, isn’t it possible that China may follow South Africa’s example?”

Smith said he has studied tigers for 34 years in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Thailand and has advised on tiger surveys and assessments in Yunnan, Cambodia and Vietnam. His goal has always been to help conserve tigers in the wild, and this has remained his highest priority.

In China, where tigers have been a cultural symbol for over 4,000 years, he supported the Chinese government’s efforts to save wild tigers.

“My experience working with Chinese colleagues at tiger workshops in Thailand and in Xishingbanna is that they are very serious, dedicated wildlife managers. The field of wildlife management is somewhat new in China, but there is a strong interest in conservation and I strongly support Chinese efforts to conserve tigers.”

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Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

Leon Marshall’s blog posts >>


More About Tigers From Nat Geo News Watch

Summit to Save Last Wild Tigers Must Do More Than Growl
Tiger range countries meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the International Tiger Conservation Forum hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have been urged by conservation activists to “act decisively now or face a future in which the wild tiger is extinct.”

A Thousand Tigers Dismembered for Skin-and-bones Trade
Parts of at least 1,069 tigers have been seized in tiger range countries over the past decade, according to an analysis of tiger seizures released today by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

America’s 5,000 Backyard Tigers a ‘Ticking Time Bomb’
With more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than survive in the wild, the United States needs a centralized federal database to monitor the big cats, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says.

World Tiger Day 2010
Joseph Smith, Tiger Program Director for Panthera, a charity dedicated to restoration and conservation of the world’s 36 species of wild cats, answers questions about the challenges facing tigers.

A Last Stand for Tigers?
With the number of wild tigers at an all-time low, a study warns that unless conservation managers redouble funds and efforts to protect tigers in the few places they can still thrive, we may lose the world’s largest cat.

China and Russia Declare International Sanctuary for Siberian Tigers
Jilin province of China and neighboring Primorsky province in Russia have agreed to collaborate formally in working towards the first transboundary Amur tiger protected area.

World’s Largest Tiger Reserve Designated in Myanmar
A region the size of the U.S. state of Vermont has been earmarked by Myanmar as a sanctuary for the tiger, one of the most endangered animals on the planet. But can the poaching of the big cats and their prey be stopped?

World Bank Invests in Tiger’s Future
World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick unveiled Vanishing Icons–a new National Geographic exhibition of photographs of tigers, lions, and other big cats–at the bank’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Read more about the plight of tigers and other big cats and what concerned people across the world are doing to help them on the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative website.   

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn